Preparing healthy meals that are good for you and your wallet

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By the time you've made it through the workday, you're probably ready to head home and put your feet up on the couch. But before you can relax, you need to conquer one more daily challenge — deciding what's for dinner.
For many, meal planning feels like just another chore, and there's a common misconception that cooking healthy meals is costly and time-consuming (think of all that chopping!). But with some quick and easy strategies, you can put healthy, affordable meals on the table, or in your lunch bag, in no time.

Have a supermarket strategy

Before you hit the grocery store aisles, consider creating a simple menu of meals and corresponding grocery list. After all, it's a lot easier to make veggie lasagna when you have a recipe and all the right ingredients on hand.
Once you're at the store, shop the perimeter to load up on foods with the greatest nutritional value, staying away from prepackaged foods that are often laden with high sodium, fat, and other additives. Look for in-season produce and low-fat dairy and protein, and then supplement with on-sale staples like rice, whole wheat flour, and healthy cereals.
To save money, sign up for your store's loyalty program, and check out weekly flyers to see what's on sale. A quick pivot to a few sale items is an easy way to save a few dollars.
Before you hit the grocery store aisles, consider creating a simple menu of meals and corresponding grocery list.

Shop for items with many uses

As you shop, look for healthy "multitaskers" — ingredients that can be used in several ways. For example, Greek yogurt is a kitchen staple with lots of uses:
  • As breakfast, paired with granola or fruit
  • In smoothies
  • As an egg substitute in baking
  • In place of sour cream when you add a squeeze of lemon
  • In salad dressing
Other ingredients with a surprising number of uses include brown rice and bagged spinach. You can even adapt entire meals for other times of the day. After all, who among us hasn't enjoyed the occasional "breakfast for dinner"?

Search for nutritious superheroes

While at the store, keep your eyes peeled for so-called "superfoods," which are packed with nutrients.
These nutritious all-stars include:
  • Dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and bok choy (in general, the darker the green, the more nutrients they contain)
  • Red/orange fruits and vegetables like carrots, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes
  • Beans, peas, and legumes like lentils
  • Nonfat and low-fat dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and even kefir, which is filling and packed with probiotics
  • Lean protein like fish, chicken, and tofu
  • Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and oatmeal
Once you find superfoods you enjoy, you can search sites like Pinterest to find delicious ways to incorporate them into your next meal.

Don't forget your freezer

Can't shop every day? Put your freezer to work by buying and freezing fresh foods in advance. You can stock up on lean meats like chicken, pork, and beef when they're on sale, or purchase economy family packs, which allow you to use some now and freeze the rest for later. You can also load up on frozen vegetables like corn, peas, and carrots, which can be used to bulk up soups and stews. On-sale or overripe berries, mangoes, or pineapples can be cut and frozen and used later to add vitamins and flavor to smoothies, or sweeten your oatmeal and yogurt naturally.

Bring it with you

Packing your lunch for school or work — even one or two days a week — not only saves you money, but also reduces your chances of being tempted by less-healthy choices. Here are some on-the-go meal ideas — and don't forget the ice pack for proper refrigeration.
  • Try a spinach and kale salad, and add lean chicken, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, and raisins for some sweetness (which can reduce the temptation for sweet treats later). Or make a "Kale-sadilla" — a quesadilla with cheese, chicken, and kale.
  • Make an egg salad sandwich with more egg whites than yolks, for higher protein and less fat and cholesterol, on whole grain bread. Throw in baby carrots and an apple to complete your meal.
  • Warm up a pre-baked sweet potato, and add Greek yogurt topping.
  • Fill a turkey and cheese wrap with shredded cabbage for added crunch and fill-you-up fiber.
  • Pack a brown rice bowl with broccoli and lean beef. Go easy on the sauce to avoid high sugar and salt.
  • Choose water instead of sugary drinks like soda, juice, or sweetened tea/coffee, which tend to be high in calories and have little nutritional value.
Packing your lunch for school or work — even one or two days a week — not only saves you money, but also reduces your chances of being tempted by less-healthy choices.

Tap the power of technology

From blogs to apps, there's a wealth of online information that can complement your healthy and affordable meal plans. Here are a few places where you can find more ideas:
Fooducate: This free app lets you scan food at the grocery store to find healthy choices, learn from daily nutrition tips, and connect with others who have similar diet, health, and fitness goals.
Environmental Working Group's Good Food on a Tight Budget: Stretch your dollars with this online shopping guide that evaluates top food picks that pack in nutrients at a good price. Browse shopping and cooking tips, sample menus and recipes to help you make healthy choices while staying within your budget.

Enjoy the benefits

Armed with these simple strategies, you'll be well on your way to healthier meals that are convenient and easy on the wallet. Plus, not only will you be eating better, the money you save can be invested in something more important, like your retirement — helping to improve both your physical and financial health.
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